Secular Humanism

A few years back I had a dinner conversation with Archbishop Hunthausen. It was at St. James Cathedral rectory and five other priests were at the table. The Archbishop had just returned from Rome. On the trans-Atlantic flite they showed the movie War Games. Since Archbishop Hunthausen was famous for protesting the folly of nuclear weapons, we were naturally curious what he thought about the movie. But he did not focus on the anti-war theme. "What amazed me," he said, "is that in the movie the world is going to end in a half hour. But no one mentions God, the afterlife or repentance. The closest someone came was one guy saying he was sorry he never learned how to swim!" He went on to say that he hopes our society is not that spiritually bankrupt, but still that is what our young people are constantly being fed. The diet the Archbishop described is "secular humanism."

In the May 1997 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Fr. John Burke, O.P. has a provocative article: "Preaching to Secular Humanists on Sunday." Secular humanism, he states, is the "common heritage of all Americans." It is part of the air we breathe and we are constantly mouthing its little sayings: "You are entitled to your views, I am entitled to mine. It does not matter what you do, as long as you don't hurt anyone. You do your thing, I will do mine."

For most of us those statements are self-evident. Anyone who questions them is at best odd, at worse a fanatic. Even those who believe in a clear code of right and wrong, for example the Ten Commandments, feel compelled to say, "Of course, I would not want to impose my belief on anyone else."

On one level this tolerance is a way of getting along. So many fights have been caused by one person insisting that the other accept his opinion. Best to live and let live. Even the person with strong moral and religious convictions may feel it desirable to keep them on the back burner for the sake of working together.

Vice President Gore gave an example of that approach when he spoke at the memorial service for Carl Sagan, an avowed atheist. He talked about how Sagan would soothe tensions by saying, "We do not have to agree on when and why the Earth was created in order to work to save it."

Is there anything wrong with such an irenic approach? To answer that question we need to ask what is the underlying philosophy.

Fr. Burke gives this description of secular humanism: "a way of looking at reality that denies the impact of God on human affairs." It doesn't necessarily deny His existence, just whether He makes any difference in our here and now concerns. In putting God on the margins "it denies the existence of an absolute and knowable objective truth." Such a denial would make each individual's ideas or feelings the norm for action. A universal moral law would be ruled out of court.

From a philosophical viewpoint it is easy to see what underpins secular humanism. It is a dressed up form of agnosticism: the doctrine that considers it impossible to know whether there is a God or a future life or anything beyond material phenomena. The agnostic can appear to be the most reasonable--and the most humble of persons. He will often say things like, "the older I get the more I realize how little I know."

But is the agnostic actually so humble? Or so reasonable? What seems a humble statement conceals a certain arrogance: "Those who claim any knowledge, especially about God, are in fact deluded fools. They need to grow up. If they faced life bravely, like I do, they would acknowledge that they are misled." As one agnostic told me, "I don't know if God exists--and neither does anyone else." Turns out he knows an awful lot.

That is precisely the weak point in the agnostic claim. As Bernard Lonergan showed in Insight, we cannot escape making judgments, saying that something is or is not. Analyzing the knowing process involved in mathematics, science and common sense, he shows that such a judgment is not an illusion. It reachs something beyond mere appearances or phenomena. The agnostic ironically witnesses to that when he adds "and neither does anyone else..." That judgment, like all the other ones we so confidently make, indicate that our consciousness is oriented to truth and being. We want to say, "it is" and "it is true."

It took him 784 pages but Lonergan convincely demonstrates that it is not nonsense to say something is true, real or good. You might be thinking, "I knew that all along. I would not need that many pages of dense prose to discover such a simple fact." But the point is that the secular humanist, with his underlying agnosticism, will ultimately deny any such an assertion. At least he will deny it as an acceptable part of public discource. And as Fr. Burke points out, we are all permated by that philosophy. If we do not take it seriously, we run the risk of going over the heads--and hearts--of our hearers. And not just at Sunday morning homily time, but any time we speak about such things as right & wrong, judgment and truth, God and eternal life.

I have not addressed some of the stickier parts of secular humanism, particularly how it undercuts the moral law. Its power (and insidiousness) is shown by the fact it enables such an argument as: "I know abortion is wrong, it is the taking of an innocent human life. At the same time I will defend a woman's unimpeded right to make that choice." This view has the cogency of arguing that teen smoking is harmful, but balking at restricting their access to cigarettes. But we will not be able to address the "pro-choice" position unless we are willing to question some of the basic assumptions our American culture. Because of this a full-bodied Christianity--not the water-down version--will be radically counter-cultural.

I refer you to Fr. Burke's article which gives some ideas how to face this dilemna in preaching. In doing so he says a lot about what it means to exercise our faith in a society deeply imbued with secular humanism.


The Case Against Naturalism

The Moral Law: A Response to Carl Sagan

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (A Review)

Secular Humanism in Popular Culture: Nothing Sacred

Did the pope endorse evolution?

Review of Darwin on Trial by Phillip Johnson.

Homily on the Moral Law

Hawking, Galileo and the Pope

Hitler's Pope: Comic Book Approach to Church History

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church

Germaine Greer on Birth Control

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church

Magdalene Sisters and other anti-Catholic Pornography (Warning: Contains graphic descriptions.)

A Pro-Choice Argument

God's Weak Ones

Simple Catholicism receives citation in Daily Kos! (Caution: contains reference to a private body part)